As a rule of thumb, no one else is obligated to pay the debt of a person who has died. So, in general, you will not be responsible to pay off your deceased spouse’s debts. However, there are some exceptions that vary from state to state:
- If you co-sign on a loan, then you now owe the debt.
- If you are a joint account holder of a credit card owned by your deceased spouse, then you owe the debt.
- If you have a jointly-owned property and that property is being subject to the settlement of your deceased spouse’s debts as ordered by your local probate court, then you now share the liability.
- If you live in a community property state, you may be required to use your community property to pay the debts of your deceased spouse. Debts incurred by either spouse in community property states are generally considered equally owed by the marital “community,” not by either spouse individually. So, you, as the surviving spouse, could be held liable for these debts. Laws can vary in community property states, which as of 2020 are: California, Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Idaho, and Washington.
If your spouse has died and you live in California, which as mentioned is a community property state, it’s important to consult with an estate planning attorney experienced with handling trust administration or probate in California to be properly informed of your rights and responsibilities.
Unless there is an exception, you do not have to take responsibility for the debt of your deceased spouse. If you are being harassed or feel that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices to try to collect a debt, is being violated, you may be able to sue the debt collection company or the individual debt collector for damages.
Finally, it’s important to note that while a spouse is not personally liable for their deceased spouse’s debt, unfortunately, their spouse’s estate is. An estate cannot be closed, and assets will not be distributed until the probate court works to resolve all claims from creditors that are brought forward.
If you are a beneficiary to an estate, either as a widowed spouse, child, or otherwise, and you are concerned about the estate’s debts, our attorneys can help you work through your options. Please contact our law firm at (949) 333-3702 to set up a consultation with an Orange County estate attorney.
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Kevin Snyder is a husband, father, and an Orange County estate planning attorney at Snyder Law, PC in Irvine, California. He’s all about family and passionate about estate planning, elder law, and veterans. He founded Snyder Law to help families from Orange County, Los Angeles County, and Southern California plan to protect what matters most: their loved ones, their dignity, and their legacy.